Kristy Rutter on Making Church Mergers Work


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KristyRutterKristy works with New Campus Development for The Chapel, a multisite church in greater Chicago area. Since joining The Chapel in 2009 she has helped them grow from four to eight campuses mostly through mergers. Today’s episode is full of insights from her on how church mergers work. Kristy is a bonafide expert in her field and provides a wealth of insights for churches considering working closely together. Make sure you have a way to take notes during this episode … it’s packed from the first minute with practical help for every church leader!

Kristy Rutter // [Website] [twitter]

Interview Highlights

01:50 // 1-4 Campuses overnight!

02:05 // Struggling churches came to The Chapel for help

02:30 // Kristy’s Role is to be proactive before a church closes down

02:36 // 1% of America’s churches close every year

04:30 // First Question: Could we be better together?

04:50 // Both parties need to put the Kingdom ahead of their own desires

05:35 // Merge numbers aren’t the whole story, but they look exciting!

06:00 // Rich shares about Liquids recent merger

07:15 // Kristy explains how to avoid being an ‘ambulance chaser’

10:20 // Rich highlights Kristy and The Chapel’s desire to help other churches

11:05 // Kristy shares other practical ways to support neighboring churches

11:30 // “It takes the whole church to present the whole Gospel to the whole world.”

13:20 // Kristy has helped more churches merge with other churches than with The Chapel

14:15 // Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird’s book called “Better Together

14:29 // Old merger math compared with new merger math.

16: 35 // Rich recalls an emotional story of an Elder from a dying church at the launch of a merged church

18:30 // Proactive approach to mergers isn’t always initially received as positive

19:05 // Resistance is a great way to build a relationship

20:40 // No partnership ever happens without a move of God

Lightning Round Highlights

Helpful Online Resource // Google, articles, podcasts

Books That are Having an Impact //  “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown

Inspiring Ministries // Carey Nieuwhof, Andy Stanley,,

Inspiring Leader // Brene Brown, Christine Caine

What does he do for fun? // Hanging out with 7 and 9 year old, pancake breakfast on Saturday, Rebounder while watching TV, coffee with friends one on one

Check This Out // An article on mergers … Lessons Learned from a 29 Member 191 Year Old Church.


Interview Transcript //

Rich – Alright, well welcome to the show today.  So glad that you decided to tune in and spend some time with us.  We’ve got Kristy Rutter on the phone.  She’s a real expert, a variable guru.  Thanks so much for being on the show today Kristy!

Kristy – Oh, I’m super excited Rich.  I love you, I love your stuff.  I’ve followed you for years. I pinch myself that I’m actually being highlighted on your show!

Rich- Oh Gosh! I don’t know about that.  Com’on this is a great thing!  I’ve been excited to have you.  Since you said yes I have been like, this is going to be great!  This is going to be packed full of information for church leaders on a topic that I think just has huge potential for a lot of churches out there!  So why don’t you tell us a little bit about The Chapel in the Chicagoland area.  And tell us about your role there.

Kristy – Well we are a multi-site church.  We have 8 campuses and The Chapel went from 1-4 campuses over night. Two of those were via mergers.  We reached to churches around us …one was struggling, and one was losing their senior pastor and said to us ‘do you have anyway you can help us?’  We knew nothing about multisite at the time and so we really sort of pulled the bandaid off, went from 1-4 and learned everything about multisite all at once.  And then we had to take a big break because obviously we had to let things settle down and put structures in place.  When I came a long the idea was, while we really loved helping these churches that we merged with, and they came to us, but do you think it is possible that there are churches out there that don’t know we can help them. Could we proactively start those conversations and see if there are any, what we like to call ‘kingdom win-wins’ out there.  And so my role is really to initiate those conversations.  One percent of churches in the US close every year, so the Chicagoland area, there are 35 churches closing every year on my watch.

Rich – Wow!

Kristy – And so I try to catch them before that happens and tell them that there are other options besides selling to a gas station and closing your doors.  And that motivates me everyday to try and find them before they shut down.

RIch – Wow!  That’s amazing.  That’s a great stat to start with that 1% of churches, and to think that in Chicagoland there are 35 churches about to close down.

Kristy – And whoever’s out there, in the footprint of where God has called you to reach, do a little research to find out how many churches are in the area God has called you.  And know that 1% are in danger of closing down.  And you can find out that’s 5, 10, 100 and that’s why I am passionate that we partner and help one another to reach more people.

Rich – What does that look like? So how do you actually partner with existing churches.  Maybe you can talk about one that you have actually opened today, transformed, re-birthed into an existing campus, and then even future ones.  How do you do that?

Kristy – Well the ones that have agreed to merge, one was a church of 35, no senior pastor, were approached by a gas station, ready to sell.  And they said, ‘can you help us?’ It just started with dinner with everyone all at once.  They were small enough.   We walk everyone though a process, sharing out DNA, finding out what’s non-negotiable to them, what’s non-negotiable to us.  And really we just ask the question “Could we be better together?”  What would a partnership look like?  And in some cases, it’s not a good fit, and in some cases yes, we think God is…it really has to start with God leading both groups.  The biggest thing is that both sides have to be putting the Kingdom of God first, over their individual needs and wants.  ‘Oh well what happens to our administrator?’  Well, let’s think bigger.  What’s better for the Kingdom, over our individual churches. And both churches have to lay that down before we move forward.  And when we find a group that wants to investigate, and wants to put the Kingdom first you keep going and find the best solution.  And sometimes it’s a merge and sometimes it’s not.

Rich – Right.

Kristy – I’ve merged 4 times at The Chapel and all the churches, every body would say ‘it was very healthy, it came out better, more people are reached.”  The average church in America is 75.  The average multi-site church in America is 361.  So a merge has the potential, right off the bat to reach 300 more people.  Those are just exciting.  Numbers don’t’ tell the whole story but those are exciting to see what can happen.

Rich – Now how, when you  talk about being proactive….so we went through as a church here at Liquid last year, I guess more like 15 months we went through that process, and it was a total God story.  Similar kind of story, we had for people who haven’t heard me talk about that, there were 29 people left in the church, it was 33 days from the day when we had the first phone call until the day that they voted.  Actually, you will get a kick out of this, the congregation voted, all 29 voted, ‘Yes, we are going to do that’ were  standing out on the porch, the front of the church and the chairman of the board and the elders reached into his pocket and takes out his key ring, and hands the key over. ‘There is is.’ And from there until today it has been amazing.  We are averaging 800 people a weekend.  It’s been amazing!

Kristy – Awesome!

Rich – A total God story.  So I think for us, and part of the reason I am excited to have you on the phone today is for us the having groups come to us, that makes sense.  But what are you doing on the proactive side, how do you go to churches and say ‘you know your church is going to die?”  You feel like an ambulance chaser.  What does that look like?  How are you doing that.

Kristy – Right.  Well first of all I always say a church that self defines themselves as not reaching their full potential.  I’ve met small churches that are completely on mission, and I’ve met large churches that feel held back.  So that’s my definition, you’re declining… But if you say hey, this is an area you feel God leading you anyways,  you can get a list of churches and I start praying over them honestly.  And saying God who do you think we could really be a blessing to, and then I visit them and I build relationships.  What’s going on in your church, what’s your mission, what’s your vision, how could we help?  We’re thinking about coming to this area.  It kills me to think about giving the local school $3-5000 a month when that could be a staff person for you, that could be the new furnace that could help keep you guys going, if we could rent from you, or if we could share space.  Could we have a 11 o’clock service and you have a 9.  You know for a lot of churches that is huge to think, wow instead of putting your service down the street and being a final death blow, you actually might be the ones to revive us while at the same time planning a new work.  So I really encourage churches to talk to all the pastors, we are thinking about coming here, is there anyone that would like to think about partnership? There are a wide range of options. And it’s whatever that church says, that would bless us.  And we have at The Chapel, we have helped way more churches than have actually merged with us.  We have had 10 serious conversations over two years and two merged with us.  Four we helped merge with someone else because we weren’t the best fit.  Two ended up having to close.  And two, actually we said, you are better for the Kingdom on your own. You just need a little resourcing, a little strategy but you are on the upswing, you have a unique mission, we don’t want to upset that.  So we go in with that heart that we are going to do whatever is best for the Kingdom, then the right outcome comes out of it.  If you are thinking oh I want to go and find a free building, then it’s not going to go well if that’s what’s in your mind and in your heart.  Every church I talk to, I see the church that I grew up in that went through 10 pastors in 15 years, that, you know has not changed much.  I love every church I talk to, and I believe every church I talk to has something to bring to us.  And every church that we have merged with has taught us something that that we have been able to take to all our campuses.

Rich – Ya, part of what I have appreciated about kind of watching you from a distance is, which I think you are maybe, I want to make sure people hear, is that your heart as an individual, and the churches heart to just help other churches.  Although the building things has happened, you know that’s not your primary orientation.  I think you hold that in tension well.  You know we are actually talking with other churches and the hope is that at some pointe maybe these conversations will help us end up launching new campuses, but it’s not all about that.  What are some of those ways you have supported other churches, either through this effort or as a whole?  How has The Chapel done that?

Kristy – And you are right, The Chapel really has instilled this DNA in me, to not be territorial, to be Kingdom first, so I give them all the credit for that.  But The Chapel started an organization called ‘Christ Together.’ I was just at a conference yesterday, totally free, pulled all the churches together in the area.  We have meetings set up where pastors can support one another.  And the idea is that it takes the whole church to present the whole Gospel to the whole world.  And that is really the heart. All mergers come out of relationship so the more relationships and the more pastors you know, the more it makes sense that you will be there.  All of our campus pastors, part of their job is to know 10 other pastors in their zip code and ask ‘How can we bless you?’  So it really is part of an overall heart to help.  I mean if it’s in our power to help another church we will if we can.  You have a million dollar debt, we probably can’t help you, but can we sit down  and look at your budget and your finances and find out how can you continue to pay for that mortgage or eliminate some debt, or have a campaign to reduce it.  Or can we give you guest speakers when you’ve lost your pastor?  Can we provide that for free so you don’t have to pay for it?  So those are all sorts of things…we’ve mentored pastors, we’ve sent small group curriculum for free, we’ve filled in a guest speakers when they’re without a pastor.  Whatever is in our power to help, we try.

Rich – Wow. That’s very cool.  A couple things I just want to point out there to make sure they don’t get lost.  I love what you just said there about your campus pastors need to have relationships with 10 other pastors / churches in their area.  I think that’s huge.  I think your orientation towards let’s just help in whatever way we can do that.  I think that’s reasonable.  That obviously doesn’t sideline your mission, that’s critical.

Kristy – I just think it’s cool, and The Chapel counts that a win in my role, that we’ve helped more mergers with other churches than our own.  And we celebrate that.  I can send you emails to top leadership saying ‘Woohoo, this church got to merge and it was with someone else.’  I really feel like I am a match maker to find the best fit.  And it that’s with us, great.

Rich – Well the Kingdom wins at the end of the day and I think God will honor that.  I think that’s a part of the story that God’s writing there for you guys.  Now, there’s this idea of mergers…there’s kind of the old school idea of mergers what was like 2 churches that weren’t working out that well and they got together.  Kind of talk about that.  What were some of the dynamics that are at play between that style of merger and what you are talking about.

Kristy – Well, I highly recommend Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird’s book called “Better Together” for all things merger.   The stats and a lot of information that I quote comes from their book that I am borrowing. But I love the illustration that the old math of mergers was 1+1=1.  You would have two dying churches of 50 people each get together, the one would shut down, they move to one location and they would expect they would be 100.  Well, over time to what ever the highest number was between the two of them. SO they will shrink back to 50.  So the net gain is actually -50 on a merger.  The new math they say is 1+1 = 4. So you have a church of 75 that merges with a church of let’s say 1000 and both churches grow.  75 will go to 300 and the 1000 person church…and they stay in their same locations and people just love that.  They see the building that they sacrificed for, that they maybe gave lots of money towards 60 years ago, that they were baptized in, that their kids went to Sunday School, they see new life, conversions, new families, baptisms that they may not have seen in a long time.  And the first time that you maybe see tears running from the eyes of someone at the opening launch of the church and they say, ‘This is the church that I always knew we could be!’ I mean, you are hooked to see that happen over and over for churches that think it would be right for them.  It’s messy.  It’s super messy, it’s a long process.  I mean the fact that you had it happen in 33 days, for anyone listening, that’s not normal

Rich – No, exactly it’s not normal at all.

Kristy – It’s more like a 7 month process or longer.  That church of 29, whether they stayed there or not, that has to be rewarding for them to see 800 people.  Did any of the original members stay?

RIch – Ya, actually a large percentage of that group stayed and are probably 2/3 stayed and are serving like a dirty shirt, in there like a dirty shirt.  It’s like one of those memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life, opening Sunday we had our doors blown off.  1300 people came on opening Sunday, it was crazy. And Joe who was the key elder on the board, he really was the guy who led the process, and he’s now part of our hospitality team so he’s running around getting coffee and stuff and he pulls me aside and he’s welling up, he’s getting quite teary, and he says ‘This is way more emotional than I thought it was going to be, it is amazing to see what God has done here.’  And it’s cool to kind of share that moment with him, it’s exciting to be a part of!

Kristy – Well, I love it.

Rich – We put it in the category of it’s definitely God at work.  The 33 day thing, you know, because we’ve launched a number of campuses and it outpaces anything we’ve done.  There’s no model where we can say let’s do that again, let’s have God move in a miraculous way and you know it just doesn’t.  We’ve experienced a similar kind of thing where we’ve basically had 160  volunteers that went to the new campus, we launched out, and over all our attendance across all campuses is up 1000 people. So it’s not like we just moved a bunch of people in to that location, we ended up increasing our overall which is fantastic.  When you think about the proactive side, just to get back to that a bit, what part of that has been negative?  Have you had any negative interactions where people are like why are you talking to me?  Or maybe it’s just been all positive.

Kristy – Well you know in general pastors tend to be kind to you.  I have had a little bit of hesitation, what’s going on, where’s the strings attached.  It’s really great when you can share the churches you’ve helped and they didn’t help you at all.  It cost you time, it cost you money, it cost you energy. So I have all those stories I can tell and pastors they can talk to…that helps. But I find a lot that some resistance is a great way to build a relationship. One pastor was quite negative at first.  I said, we have several hundred people in this area, they have the money, they are pushing us to put a campus here, what wool you do as the church if you had that going on.  ‘Oh, I’d be looking to plant a church if people were bugging me and wanting to lead it.”  The difference with our approach is that if we come to this area, is there a way to help you and not hurt you, by going into the local school down the street.  He said, ok I get that.  We were actually in a long process with them that we ended up saying, you know what, I think if we come into your building and share space it will hurt what God is doing there and but I just saw him yesterday and said ‘hey, hows it going and don’t forget if it’s not going well, we can help.” Big hugs and this is someone that started with ‘What do you think you are doing?’  And it’s just sad that the church can be so territorial, because we are all on the same team.  And if we could see that easier then I think there would never be push back.  It’s just a conversation.  There is no way I could force anyone to do anything.   What I like about it Rich, which is what you mentioned before, I can make strategies and plans in my sleep and leave God out of it, but no church partnership ever happens without a move of God. So I can knock on lots of doors, and have lots of conversations but God still has to show up, He has to work.  He has to work in my heart, maybe in their heart to want help, there can be major obstacles actually and we aren’t sure we can work through so it always is a God moment.  i am just trying to leave a lot more space for God to work, and let churches know that hey, before you think of this, this and this, before you close, let’s talk. Let’s see how we can help you.

Rich – Right, have the conversation.

Kristy – Let’s have the conversation.  And when I have had it hundreds of times, you figure out how to do it without upsetting people and really I always try to have their best interest at heart at all times.

Rich – Well, two last questions before we jump into the lightning round.  Just a practical, tactical thing…you mentioned earlier on you can get that list of churches.  How do you find that data?  And is there anything else that you would like to share?  Those are kind of the two lessons.

Kristy – Well it’s really complicated, you go on this thing called Google.

Rich – I think i have heard of the Googles.

Kristy – And you type in, you know, what’s the name of a suburb around you where you want to plant a campus Rich?

Rich – Let’s say Scotch Plains.

Kristy – So you type into Google, Churches in Scotch Plains.

Rich – OK, OK, OK

Kristy – I’m not a techie. I live on the internet honestly.  There will be several sites that come up with all the churches listed in the area. I print it out.  I start praying and then I start looking them up and seeing who needs help.  Or who’s God leading me to.  And then I just starting visiting and talking to them and saying let’s get coffee.  It’s not rocket science.

Rich – It’s a lot of conversations.  Really just relationship stuff at that point.  Just hanging out and getting to know people.

Kristy – What was your other question?

Rich – Anything else before we jump into the lightning round?

Kristy – Well, I don’t know who’s listening but I would just say if you are a church who would self define themselves as struggling, I would just say don’t be afraid to look around to see what churches are around that you admire in your community, particularly multisite and call them, say hey can we have a conversation.  And if you don’t know how to do that or how to find that church call me, contact me, I will find them for you. And I will get you into that conversations.  And if you are a church looking to plan, grow, expand, help other churches, consider partnering first, and she how you can bless another church and create win-wins in your communities.  If you don’t know how to do that, call me, email me as well.


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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.